Friday, December 30, 2005

The Hardening

I learned something recently. Actually, it has been a long process of growing awareness, but it has suddenly become clearer. I think it’s something that I didn’t really want to believe, but if I’m to be honest, I have to acknowledge the evidence.

In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul declares: “a hardening has come upon a part of Israel…” (11:25), and he says this is a mystery we need to understand. Now I don’t wish to talk about Israel here, because I think that the hardening has come upon the whole world—not every individual, of course, but upon many. The hardening is that of the heart, in biblical terms, which results in a refusal to recognize the truth, even when it is clearly and unmistakably set before them. It is a willful rejection of that for which there is plentiful and often irrefutable evidence—just because they have some other reason for believing a lie.

In my naiveté, I had always thought that those who rejected the truth did so because of ignorance, of not having all the facts or evidence, or of some other impediment or incapacity that was not (entirely) their fault. The presumption was that if an ordinary, rational human being were presented with clear evidence or cogent arguments, especially if the evidence or the logic were manifestly unassailable, he would naturally accept the truth that was shown him. But this is not so when dealing with a hardened heart.

St Paul said this of the pagans who refused to believe in Christ: “they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart…” (Ephesians 4:18). Thus their ignorance is culpable. Hardness of heart alienates one from God, and hence from truth and love.

Here’s an example that helped tip the scales for me. “Emile Zola went to Lourdes for the purpose of condemning the whole enterprise. But unexpectedly he witnessed a striking miracle before his very eyes. An eighteen-year-old girl was suddenly cured of three apparently incurable diseases: advanced lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis, and large ulcerations on her leg. Zola himself described the girl’s face as being eaten away by the lupus: ‘The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.’ She went into the bath and ‘emerged completely cured.’ Zola was present. And the cure was permanent, because sixteen years later she remained in perfect health. But there was no change in Zola’s mind” (Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty, emphasis added). Someone who can witness such a dramatic and undeniable miracle and walk away unmoved, unconvinced, can only be said to have hardened his heart.

One cannot reason with people like that; one cannot show them compelling evidence and expect them to accept it; one cannot assume that they will call white white and black black, but in fact may do just the opposite. Those who have hardened their hearts seem to be increasing in number, and they hold influential positions in the media, the government, and even in the Church—and especially in lucrative enterprises like the abortion industry. You really have to have a hard heart to be able to cut little babies into pieces every day, and then take home a nice paycheck without looking back. And there are many who are complicit in this evil, who don't actually do the dirty work.

A hardening has come upon many who attack the Church, whether from without or within. It is clear what the Church teaches; read the Catechism and papal documents. But many try to reject, deny, distort or otherwise make them into something that fits their own preference or agenda, and then denigrate those who uphold her teachings! Why? If they don’t like what the Catholic Church teaches, there are plenty of others who accommodate their brand of error quite willingly; they can join them! But no, a hardened heart has reasons that reason would shudder to know.

I think we have to accept that there are many with whom we will get nowhere by reasoning, clear argumentation and documentation, or any other form of normal, rational dialogue. They will not see or hear the truth because somewhere deep within they have already decided to reject it at all costs. What they stand to gain—economically, politically, socially—is more important to them than what is true, good, and beautiful. For them the only thing we can do is pray and sacrifice, so that the Holy Spirit will somehow reach them from within, overturning their chosen obstacles to truth and righteousness, shining a clear and divine light within them.

Then perhaps a “softening” will occur, and hearts and minds will open to the truth, will abandon arrogance, greed, self-aggrandizement and the “malignant narcissism” that is at the core of many of today’s hardened hearts. Don’t expect to soften a hardened heart with words. Go to the Lord instead with words of supplication, pleas for mercy—and then from his heart rivers of living water will flow, to wear away all hardness and to bring new life. This may take a long time, for a hardened heart is the most difficult thing to heal, more so than ravaging diseases of the body. The girl at Lourdes was instantly healed of those, but Emile Zola walked away still bearing his hard heart. Let us trust that with God all things are possible, and begin praying in earnest.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Immeasurable Riches of Grace

We continue reflecting upon the abundance of blessings, praise and glory in which St Paul exults in Ephesians. What is needed to go deeper (and what Paul asks of God for us) is “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” (1:17-18).

With enlightened heart-eyes, we see something that is rather unpleasant but which becomes a reason for profound gratitude: we “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked” (2:1-2). The gratitude isn’t for being dead in sins, for “following the course of this world” and the evil spirit who is its prince, who urged us to “live in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind…like the rest of mankind” (v. 3). It is for what happened next: God the Father “made us alive with Christ…and raised us up with Him…” This is because God is “rich in mercy” and so “out of the great love with which He loved us,” He saved us by his grace. Why did He do this? So that “He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4-7).

You might say that this is simply a standard piece of basic biblical theology, and on one level that is correct. But look at what it means for us. Being rather dull in spiritual perception, we don’t realize how horrible a thing it is to be spiritually “dead in sins,” and what the consequences are for all eternity. We perhaps aren’t aware that to be “saved” isn’t just to have made a profession of faith or to have joined a church, but it is to be spared a fate worse than death—because death is not the end but only the beginning of the horrors. St Paul says: that’s how mankind lives, dead in sins, following every impulse suggested by unrestrained desire and the goading of the evil one. But you, he says, you who have put your faith in Christ, have been raised from the dead before the general resurrection! You have been enlightened so as to perceive another way to live, the only way that leads to eternal happiness.

God wants us to see that, for He loves us with a great love and is rich in mercy—immeasurably rich in grace in Christ Jesus. He rescued us, after having searched for us in the lairs of dragons (as St Ephrem says). Lest we think this is over-dramatized and that we can enter eternal happiness by maintaining a convenient and bland human decency, St Paul cries out: “By grace you have been saved…and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (v. 9). Our immeasurable poverty cries out for God’s immeasurable riches. This is why Paul began this letter with the praise of God’s glory and goodness to us. He knows that we’re all goners if God doesn’t pour out his rich mercy upon us. But God has done so, and is doing so, and will continue to do so until the moment we stand before his judgment seat.

We need the eyes of our hearts enlightened so we can realize clearly the frightening state of being “dead in sins” and the glorious gift of being made “alive in Christ.” Salvation is meaningless if all we need to be is “nice.” We must know from what and for what we have been saved, and thus our gratitude will be endless—and our efforts to live in accordance with God’s gift will be untiring.

So what will it be? “Dead in trespasses, children of wrath, sons of disobedience”—or “alive in Christ, saved by grace, created for good works by the God of love, mercy, and immeasurable riches”? Let us receive—and hold on to, for dear life!—the gift of God in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Praise of Glory

One of my favorite chapters in the Pauline epistles is the first chapter of Ephesians. It is very rich in consolations flowing from the Holy Spirit and St Paul’s own faith-charged exuberance in the glorious bounty of God’s priceless gifts.

One phrase he likes to repeat is “the praise of his glory.” Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was a big fan of Paul’s, and she believed that God had given her this as her own new name. She sometimes called herself “Praise of Glory,” for that was what her life was essentially about.

Paul speaks of the praise of God’s glory in two basic ways. First, it is the natural, spontaneous, and only really appropriate response to God’s lavish goodness to us. Paul’s long list of blessings ends with the seal of the Holy Spirit, “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it—to the praise of his glory” (v. 14). Our inheritance—“every spiritual blessing,” our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, the grace and love of God—is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, so what can we do but praise his glory, praise his mercy, praise his everlasting love? This “praise of glory” has basically the same meaning as the “praise of his glorious grace” in verse 6.

This leads us to the other use of the expression. It is not adequate to God’s wondrous generosity for us merely to praise Him once or twice, or from time to time. Like Blessed Elizabeth, we have to be a praise of glory. Therefore Paul declares that we “have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). That is not only the goal but the present activity of our lives, our appointed task and honor.

God has always wanted his beloved people to live for the praise of his glory. We get a hint of this from the prophet Isaiah. God describes his chosen people thus: “every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (43:7). He goes on to say that they are “the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise” (43:21).

God has made us for his glory, which means that He will be glorified in us and we in Him. We can’t really add anything to the infinite, eternal, utterly transcendent and holy glory that is God’s by nature, but we glorify Him by freely saying “yes,” “amen,” to all He is and does. In that sense we spread his influence in the world, we give Him something unique, which no one else can give, because we ourselves are unique and irreplaceable according to his loving and creative will. God in turn will invite us into the mystery of his own glory, and when we are wholly enraptured in his boundless magnificence and breathtaking beauty, we will desire nothing else but to sing our worship to Him forever.

Now is the time to begin. If we don’t praise his glory in this world, we won’t be eligible to do so in the next. Prayerfully read the Scriptures, which begin to open us up to spiritual depths we have not yet even begun to fathom. Then the Holy Spirit will take it from there. If we can avoid being enamored of the trinkets and baubles of this world, our souls will acquire a taste for true glory. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him…” (vv. 3-4).

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Light Has Come

As I mentioned in the explanation of the Nativity icon, the light of God from on high enters the darkness of the world; Christ is born in a cave in Bethlehem. I’ve written about light and darkness before, but it seems appropriate to return to that theme during these holy days.

St John said of the incarnation and manifestation of Christ: “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). But this “light” is not some vague or impersonal force or energy that merely creates positive feelings. New-agers talk a lot about the “light,” but what they mean falls far short of the dynamic, personal presence of the Eternal Word of God made flesh. Jesus called himself the “Light of the world,” and this light is not primarily a feel-good experience but a powerful proclamation of truth and life.

St John puts it in terms of judgment: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds are done in God” (3:19-21).

When Jesus was born, says St Matthew, the magi saw the light (first in the form of a star, which led them to the Light in person). They were good men, if not yet fully enlightened, so when they did at last find the True Light, they rejoiced and worshiped Him. If we are open to truth, the Spirit of God will lead us to it, and we will recognize it and rejoice. But Herod was one of those whose deeds were evil, so he feared and hated the Light. He would not come near it, but wanted to extinguish it, lest his power be threatened or his evil exposed.

A text that is often repeated during our Christmas services goes like this: “Your nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Through it those who had worshiped stars learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Righteousness, and to recognize in You the One who rises and who comes from on high. O Lord, glory to You!” The coming of the Son of God in the flesh enlightened pagans and poor shepherds, and all persons of good will who had a place in their hearts for truth and love.

But the darkness is often stubborn. It wasn’t only Herod who wanted to kill Christ—to put out that searching, convicting light of truth—but many others in positions of power and influence plotted against Him, and finally they succeeded in killing Him. But they didn’t put out the Light, for the Sun of Righteousness rose again, and all the world will have to come to the Light and be shown for what they are. If we find that we are afraid to come to Him, it is time to see if there is something within us that cannot bear the light, that does not wish to be exposed. All wounds must be honestly presented to the Healer, so that they will not fester and cause greater damage. Nothing could be worse—especially at the final judgment—than to feel compelled to flee from the Light.

Therefore now is the time to embrace the Light, to welcome Christ more fully into our hearts, making room for Him in all that makes up our lives, so that we are guided by his wisdom, encouraged by his love, healed by his mercy, and strengthened by his grace. The Light has come. Let us go to Him, that it may be clearly seen that our deeds are done in God.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christ is Born!

“To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given…and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Heaven has opened and God has appeared on earth to take away the sins of the world and to lead us back to Paradise! The glory of the Lord shimmered across the night sky as angels announced the glad tidings—we must go see this wonder that has been proclaimed. Wise men sought Him to adore Him. A wicked king sought Him to kill Him, but no one stands in the way of God once his unalterable decree has been uttered! Let us gaze upon the mystery of the Word made flesh.

The icon of this feast has much to tell us, though for most modern people its symbolic “code” needs to be deciphered. One of the reasons (though perhaps not the main one) icons were created for the Church is so that people who could not read would still be able to understand the mysteries of the faith through iconographic presentations. Icons proclaim the Gospel in color and form.

The Light shining down from the top of the image is a symbol of the Divinity. Often the Divine Light is depicted by a three-layered “mandorla,” a circle or oval of glory, in which Christ in his glory is usually manifested. The light enters the dark cave, black being the symbol of death and of the moral/intellectual darkness of the world in its ignorance or rejection of God. His Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

The first unusual thing that one might notice is that the Mother of God is facing away from her newborn child. You’d expect her to be holding and kissing and gazing upon Him, as was certainly true as historical fact, and as our liturgical texts often say. But there’s a dogmatic teaching in this iconographic symbol. It was often said in the Old Testament that man cannot see God and live. The message of Mary’s looking away: this Child is God. Thus the true and full divinity of Christ is proclaimed.

Down in the right corner of the icon we see midwives washing the Child after his birth (it’s not uncommon to have the same figures appear more than once in an icon—after all, it’s telling a story). This rather prosaic and earthy moment in the Child’s young life communicates another sacred and essential truth: He is not only true God but true Man as well. He didn’t miraculously descend from heaven with only the outward appearance of a man. He did it the hard way—conception, gestation, birth, for He was really a human Child, and He spared Himself nothing of what belongs to genuine humanity.

In the left corner we have another dogma of the Faith presented, in a quite novel fashion. St Joseph is sitting down, looking rather perplexed, while a bent old man is talking to him. The bent one is the devil, and the monologue went something like this: “Come on, Joe, get with it! She’s your wife, right? Well, she just had a baby, but did you have anything to do with it? So much for your faithful woman! You’ve been had!” The fact that St Joseph had to wonder about all this (and couldn’t go around saying, “Doesn’t He look just like me?”) proclaims this truth: the virgin birth.

The angels, shepherds and magi are present to fill in the story, but the main teaching of the icon of the Nativity is the true humanity and divinity of Christ, and the virginal conception and birth. As we venerate the icon, we say “yes” to what God has done for us through his Son. Jesus is the only Savior. Let us look with love upon Him who looks with love upon us. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

O Holy Night

The world (or at least that part of the world that is still alive, that still can feel and hope) waits breathlessly under a starry sky, watching, listening, yearning to be born anew—yearning for Christ to be born anew in all broken hearts, all suffering bodies, all thirsting souls.

He alone is the answer to the questions we perhaps have not even been able yet to formulate, that lie struggling within us, inchoate, haunting, but urgent nonetheless. We must know, but we’re not sure what we must know, or where to turn. Usually our questions begin with “why?” but the real issue is too deep, too complex to be put as a simple query. So we walk with a nameless dis-ease, a confused longing, a frightening suspicion that something is really wrong here, but with a total absence of the far-sighted wisdom that brings confidence and peace.

Into all this comes the Child. He’s the One who set the stars in their places and thought up the DNA molecule and made immortal souls. Sometimes it’s hard for Him, though, to answer our inarticulate questions directly, because we ourselves don’t really know what we’re asking, and we probably couldn’t begin to understand the answer anyway. So He decided to simply come and be with us. He would leave us with a few words to ponder and to live, but what He really came to do was to absorb into Himself all our confusion and darkness and wrongheaded lashing-out, bearing its immense pressure and emerging, diamond-like, from the crushing weight. Having done that, He goes about making little jewels out of the rest of us, though not sparing us a similar crucible. The prophet said He’d make the rough way smooth, but neglected to indicate how far that process would cross our thresholds of pain.

So we’re probably not going to receive the clear, logical, satisfying answers we’d like to receive. We’re going to be placed in a Child’s hands, squeezed, even crushed, until all our self-inflicted miseries are wrung free, and the Child’s eyes shall widen with delight as we come forth all-shining from his hands—his little, pierced hands.

That’s why tonight is called the Holy Night. It’s the Advent of the Answer. He has come from a far country, across an infinite bridge that could only be constructed of his own flesh. That’s the only way by which we can return to Paradise—yes, that is at the root of our nameless unrest: we desire profoundly to return from exile, but we do not even know our own home, let alone the way. Jesus is the Way to God, for He is the Way from God to us. When Mary said yes, humanity rose from the dead. Our cold flesh received the Divine Fire; we were given ears to hear the Voice that Lazarus heard on the fourth day of his incredible sojourn.

The Lord is not merely the cosmic Problem Solver; He simply is. For Him to be means the universe is charged with love and we are destined for everlasting joy. If we can begin to grasp that, we will discover the most simple, yet most inscrutable truth: for God to be God is for us to know peace, even in the midst of the perplexities and sufferings of the human condition. Emmanuel, God is with us; come, let us adore Him.

I don’t suppose this is your standard Christmas meditation. Today, it just couldn’t be.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Prepare the Mystery

In order to help you prepare for the imminent feast of the glorious Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, I’d like to share with you some texts from the Byzantine liturgical services celebrated in the few days before Christmas. There is much in these poetic and theologically rich texts to help us open our minds and hearts to the mystery of Emmanuel—God with us in the Person of the Son of God made man for our salvation.

“He who is carried by the cherubim has taken human nature in the abode of the immaculate womb. He has come to earth to be born of the tribe of Judah. The holy cave has been adorned like a splendid palace for the King of all; the manger, like a ruby throne. The Virgin will place the Child therein for the renewal of his boundless creation.

“Having conceived in a manner beyond understanding, the Virgin places You into the manger of the dumb animals, O Eternal Word of God, because You come to pardon the ignorance that I acquired through the envy of the serpent. You come to be wrapped in swaddling clothes in order to break the chains and fetters of my sins. O Only-blessed One and Lover of Mankind, I most joyfully glorify, extol, and adore You and your coming in the flesh; for through You I have been set free.

“O Virgin who knows no man, where do you come from? How can you cradle the Creator in your arms? How did you accomplish virgin-birth? Most pure Lady, we see in you great wonders, awesome mysteries fulfilled on earth. We shall prepare a worthy cave for you. We shall ask the heavens for a star. We shall ask the Magi from the east to come and behold your newborn Babe in a manger: the Savior of all.

“The holy Vial containing the sweet-smelling Perfume goes to the cave at Bethlehem to pour it forth in a gentle stream on those who sing: ‘Blessed are You, O God of our fathers!’

“A strange mystery, wondrous, which causes amazement: the Lord of Glory has come down upon earth. He has appeared in a cave, bearing our nature, in order to raise up Adam, and to free from her pains the ancient mother of all the living!

“Make ready, O Bethlehem; reopen yourself to all, O Paradise! For in a cave a Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin. Her womb reveals itself to be the mystical paradise wherein grows the Divine Fruit, and eating thereof we shall live and not die as did Adam, for Christ is born to restore the long-lost likeness to God.

“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear it heralded! With the angels and the shepherds glorify Him who chose to be seen as a newborn Babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

“Draw near, angelic powers; prepare the manger, O people of Bethlehem! The Word is coming into the world; the Wisdom of God is approaching! O Church, receive the signs of love! O people, speak with joy of the Mother of God! Blessed is your coming, O our God, glory to You!

“Heaven, give heed, and earth, lend your ear! The Son of the Father, the Word Himself, is coming! He shall be born of an undefiled maiden. Because she consented and gave birth without pain* through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, make ready, Bethlehem, and you, Eden, open your gates, for He-Who-Is shall become what He had not been. The Maker of creation shall become the Dispenser of great mercy to the world.

“The Virgin has conceived the Word who exists from before all time. The righteous Joseph sings to her and cries out: ‘I see you as the Temple of the Lord, bearing Him who comes to save all mankind. In his love He will make of all the faithful who sing to your name living, holy temples for our God.’”

Happy meditations! Christ is coming soon to make of your heart a new Bethlehem for his sweet repose.

* There is a tradition in the East (I don’t know if it’s the same in the West) that Mary gave birth to Christ without pain—for pain in childbirth was part of the curse laid on Eve after she had sinned, but Mary as the sinless New Eve was able to give birth painlessly. But the tradition goes on to say that the pains she was spared at childbirth she experienced at the foot of the Cross—as she said “yes” once again to giving her Son to us as our Savior.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Hidden Kingdom

Through his parables, Jesus has revealed much about the Kingdom of God. Often the parables concern The End, when there will be a final separation of the righteous and the wicked. Those that do not directly concern The End often tell us about the hidden nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of everlasting glory and triumphant joy is not yet manifest; the final separation has not yet occurred. The weeds still grow along with the wheat, and if one is to find the Kingdom one must diligently seek.

I’ve written already about the Kingdom as hidden treasure. But there are other aspects of its present hiddenness. It is like a mustard seed, almost invisible; it is like yeast mixed into dough; it is like a seed planted by a man, which “sprouts and grows, he knows not how” (Mark 4:27). The Kingdom does not have an address, a location you can visit; it is not visible “with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’” (Luke 17:20-21).

But according to these parables, the Kingdom will be known by its effects, as yeast raises dough, and seeds sprout and grow. The Kingdom will be manifest where Christ is allowed to work, within and among us. The common liturgical greeting in our tradition is “Christ is in our midst.” We have to remind each other of that, and seek the indications that this is truly so, allowing Him to grow in us, even if we know not how.

There’s a hidden aspect of the Kingdom that we are about to celebrate. The King decided not to show up with a noisy entourage, with fanfare, with the pride of a conqueror. He decided to be hidden, like a mustard seed, like a baby in a manger. Yet the Lord was not hiding from us; He was hiding for us. He knew that He could not make his entrance as the eschatological Judge, as the King of Glory. We would all disintegrate in the blazing brilliance of the light of his face, and his infinite holiness would send us scattering like guilty cockroaches into the caves and crevices of the earth.

So He came, a baby. Someone you could pick up and hold to your cheek; someone who is defenseless, vulnerable, trusting. He was not intimidating at all (and He mercifully didn’t let us see the Seraphim covering their faces in trembling awe). In fact, He sent a few other angels to tell us some Good News: the Savior had come at last.

This is something that many people do not understand, or at least not rightly. The Son of God came into the world not to judge it, but to save it. Oh, He will judge it all right, at the Last Day, and He won’t be a cuddly baby then, but now is the moment of his mercy, now is the day of salvation. Some people don’t think they need to be saved, so they don’t understand or turn to the Savior. But they obviously don’t understand themselves, either, for if they did they’d be running to Him. Others think the Savior won’t be the end-time Judge, so they treat Him as a sort of milquetoast messiah, good for some sagacious sayings but not calling us to account for our actions.

Christianity is full of paradoxes, and we must allow them their full value and power, and not try to whittle down its frightening/consoling mysteries to the size of our own comfort zones. God is both the Theophanic Thunder of Sinai and the Baby of Bethlehem, the merciful Savior and the just Judge, the universal King whose kingdom is both hidden and manifest. God is both frightening and consoling because that’s how love is, and God is love. He loves us so much that He must hate evil, and He hates evil so much (especially what it does to us) that He must reduce Himself to our size and bear it all in Himself—because He loves us so much. He must hide Himself so that we can discover Him without fear, and He must reveal Himself so that we can know the truth and be set free.

We have to come to terms with all this—His terms. The salvation of our souls must be his way or no way, for we are wholly unable to put the lid back on Pandora’s Box, to disarm the demons we’ve unleashed, to cross the threshold of death with confidence. We need the Savior. We need the all-holy and mighty God—but right now we need Him as a baby, small, accessible, for we have to be able to approach without fear.

When we fully entrust ourselves to Him who made it easy to come to Him, we will be free to let go of our sins, to give ourselves wholly to Him who gave Himself wholly to us. Then, like a mustard seed, we will sprout and grow, though we know not how. Behold, your King—and his hidden Kingdom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Good Old-fashioned Christian Poetry

I’d like to share with you today a few discontinuous stanzas from George MacDonald’s A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul, which it is my good fortune recently to have discovered. It’s just a bit of good, old-fashioned Christian poetry (he died in 1905), and perhaps a bit of timely medicine for a weary heart.

My Lord, I find that nothing else will do,
But follow where t
hou goest, sit at thy feet,
And where I have thee not, still ru
n to meet.
Roses are scentless
, hopeless are the morns,
Rest is but weakness, laughter crackling thorns,

If thou, the Truth,
do not make them the true;
Thou art
my life, O Christ, and nothing else will do.

Lord, I have fallen again—a human clod!
Selfish I was, and heedless to offend;
Stood on
my rights. Thy own child would not send
Away his shreds of nothing for t
he whole God!
Wretched, to thee
who savest, low I bend:
Give me the power
to let my rag-rights go
In the great wind that from thy
gulf doth blow.

I cannot see, my God, a reason why
From morn to night I go not gladsome, free;

For, if thou art what my soul
thinketh thee,
There is no burden
but should lightly lie,
No duty but a joy at heart must be.
Love’s perfect will
can be nor sore nor small,
For God is light—in him no darkness
is at all.

O Christ, my life, possess me utterly.
Take me and make a little
Christ of me.
If I am anything but thy Father’s son,

‘Tis something not yet from the darkness won.
Oh, give me light to live with open eyes.

Oh, give me life to hope above all skies.
Give me thy Spirit to haunt the Father with my cries.

‘Tis heart on heart thou rulest. Thou art the same
At God’s right hand as here exposed to shame.
And therefore workest now as thou didst then—
Feeding the faint divine in humble men,
Through all thy realms from thee goes out heart-power,
Working the holy, satisfying hour
When all shall love, and all be love again.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Sufficient Grace

There’s a rather famous passage in St Paul’s letters that I’ve referred to from time to time, and whenever I come across it again, as I just did a few days ago, I seem to need to reflect on it again, to get some fuller understanding. It’s a word from the Lord at once disturbing and consoling, peace-giving and perplexing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9).

This seems to be the most common answer to my prayers, at least those concerning myself. I tend to want to pray in hope that God’s grace will be sufficient, but He’s telling me that it already is. My next move is to pray that it will be manifest or experienced as such! Then He sends me back to the “is” without further comment.

Sometimes I think that if the Lord would have consulted me first about how to deal with “thorns in the flesh” or other weaknesses of human nature or character, we would have come up with a more satisfying solution. But since He chose to bypass my input, I have to conclude that He has foreseen something in His infinite wisdom and serenity that I may have missed amid my frantic cries for immediate deliverance.

Probably most of us have some “tragic flaw,” some sort of besetting temptation or sin, some nagging weakness or vulnerability that we’d like simply to be rid of once and for all. We don’t know what St Paul’s was, but he described it metaphorically (I hope that’s all it was!) as “a messenger of satan to beat me.” So then, looking at our own problems, things could be worse. All the same, we do experience inadequacy, the inability to be vibrant with virtue in flawless fortitude and unflagging faith. Somehow it seems, though, that this is precisely what God has come to expect from us—at least in this present life before we are to “shine like the sun in our Father’s Kingdom.”

Not that God wants us to wallow in sin or to give up efforts to overcome our failings, for indeed He hates evil and loves holiness, but He wants us to learn something first. He says his power is perfected in weakness, a weakness that is translated as utter dependence upon divine mercy and assistance. So his grace is sufficient, though He may not choose to wipe out every trace of our weakness, but He will carry us through with equanimity and trust, as we learn to walk with Him one step at a time, learning the necessary lessons along the way. Human beings tend to get proud and arrogant if they have no humiliating weaknesses of body or soul to serve as reality checks.

Still, we wrestle with the mystery. Paul repeatedly begged the Lord for deliverance but received only the “My grace is sufficient” response. As we progress in the spiritual life, we may go through many stages of knowing and “unknowing.” We may come to know God in a certain way, and then later realize that He is not really what we thought, or that He is, but much more, or in a different way. Life will always be a struggle, but with divine grace it will be a rewarding and enlightening one. An old monk from Mt Athos was once asked if he struggled with the devil. He replied: “I struggled with the devil for many years, but I no longer need to do so. Now I struggle with God.” That means that he had succeeded in overcoming temptations, but now he was hurled headlong into a Mystery beyond all comprehension, without any compass but radical faith and trust. It was as if he were learning about God all over again, only at a much more profound level.

We see, then, that it is not acceptable for us (at least in the long run) to ask God merely to fix what is broken, heal what hurts, or pull out those painful or humiliating thorns in the flesh. Jesus has some perfecting of his power to accomplish, and our weakness is his workbench—just as his Cross was his Father’s. “He was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God.” Life is not so much about personal perfection as it is about letting Christ live in us. “Do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2Cor. 13:4-5). God has mysteries into which He would lead us, but we have to learn how to trust and abandon ourselves to Him absolutely, even while apparently hamstrung by our defects. He has taken everything into account.

So turn the reins over to the Lord. He will meet the insufficiency of your will and efforts with the sufficiency of his grace. Then, because of his loving care for your life and salvation, and despite all appearances (or even agonies), all manner of things shall be well.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Don't Choke the Word

‘Tis the season to be jolly—and for some, to be gluttonous, mercenary, frantic, miserable, or drunk. One might wonder how that came to be a response to the glorious and awe-inspiring Incarnation of the eternal Word of God for the salvation of mankind. It is always helpful to turn to the Scriptures to discover God’s “take” on our strange goings-on and out-of-control culture. Jesus may not have specifically mentioned 21st-century holiday revelers or miserly scrooges, but his words are always to the point.

Jesus said in a parable that, as a seed is sown in the ground, He sows “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:18). Now there are various kinds of “soil” that receive this word, with various results, all of which—with one important exception—end up bearing no fruit. I’ll just focus on one of them today, the soil that is full of thorns and thistles and does not allow the seed to mature or bear fruit. (I will combine the texts of Matthew 13:22 and Luke 8:14 for the full understanding of this teaching.)

What are the “thorns” that hinder the flourishing of the word of God in many souls? According to Jesus they are the cares of the world, the delight in riches, and the pleasures of life. What happens when these are filling a soul in which Christ sows his word? They “choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” That is one of the most frightening things we can be accused of doing: choking the word of God. It’s not a small thing to turn from the way of faithfulness to the way of “the world, with all its seductions” (1John 2:17). There’s no room for the word to take root when those other cares, desires, and pleasures are cluttering up the soil. God didn’t send his Son to the earth (soil) with a tractor or bulldozer—only with a bag of seeds, the words of truth that He hoped would be freely received and bear the fruit of righteousness. But since so many tried to choke the word, He Himself had to become a seed that would fall to the earth and die (see John 12:24), so as to bear the ultimate fruit of the redemption of mankind—which still, however, must be freely received and responded to.

When we see the crass commercialization, the debauchery, the anxiety and depression that often mark this holy season, we can’t help but wonder if many people are still choking the word. The word of Christmas is a word of gladness, the annunciation of the Savior, and all heaven is in song. But that word is choked in those who live “by bread alone.”

It is not only the word, however, that is choked. Jesus also says that the very ones who choke the word by their selfish indulgence and desires are themselves choked, and they do not mature. Immaturity is certainly among the chief characteristics of the greedy and hedonistic. But we’re not talking here merely about a sort of temporarily extended adolescence. Many people never mature, for they never grow out of their self-centered world view and way of life. The choked word, the choked soul, prove unfruitful, and such people die with nothing to show for their lives. Jesus isn’t just telling quaint stories about gardens and plants for our amusement. The bottom line is: receive that word of the Kingdom and bear fruit, or you will forever be incapable of experiencing the happiness you are now seeking in all the wrong places.

At all times, but especially in holy seasons like the present one, take care not to choke the word. If some holiday preparations get left undone, so be it. Sit at the feet of Christ and receive the word. Make room for it, let it sink deep roots into your soul and bear fruit a hundredfold for the richness of life here and hereafter. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cook or shop or decorate and do the other “Martha” things, for they are important in their own way. But keep the right priorities: don’t choke the word for the sake of the cares or pleasures of these days. You will see how all things work for the good when you put God first: you will mature, and your fruit will be sweet.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Be Presence Where There Is Absence

I had occasion a few posts ago (that’s how time is measured in the blogosphere) to quote from a book by Jean Vanier, and I have occasion to quote from the same book today. He has a rather specialized vocation—caring for the severely disabled, both mentally and physically—but perhaps for that very reason his proclamation of the Gospel is all the more clear and pure. His work with these “little ones” enables him to see and be the face of Christ in the world. The following is what he understands, in general terms, as the mission of the Christian in the world.

“This is what Jesus is leading up to: his disciples will continue his mission and his works. But what is his mission? It is to give life, eternal life, and to reveal the face and heart of God to people. It is to be a presence of God in the world where there is an absence of God. God’s works are not big miracles, which some heroic disciples may be called to do, but all those works of simple kindness and goodness which give people life and lead them to trust in themselves and in God…

“Something will have to happen to change and transform them, so that they will be able to do the works of Jesus, and even greater ones! Jesus tells them how this will be: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you’ (John 14:15-17). That is the answer: the disciples are going to receive another Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, who will live in them and transform them. They will no longer be caught up in a lot of very human queries and needs flowing from their fears, culture and education; they will be separated from the emptiness of the world and brought into the place of God. Jesus reveals to them that they are not first of all going to do things, but God is going to live in them. Later we will see that because the Spirit is in them, they will do the works of God.” (emphasis added)

The task of manifesting the face of God in the world, which is the continuation of Jesus’ mission, is to be God’s presence where there is a perceived absence. It reminds me of the prayer of St Francis: put love where there is hatred, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, etc. Remember that story about the man who complained to God about the various needs and sufferings he experienced all around him, and he asked God why He didn’t do anything about it. God answered: “I did do something about it. I made you.”

In order to be God’s presence where this is needed, it is not enough simply to will it, or to go about trying to do good things solely with our own ingenuity or effort. We must be filled with God if we are to manifest God. No one gives what he doesn’t have. This is the primary thing: being filled with the Spirit of truth and love. Once God lives in us, then we can do the works of God; then we can be Presence where there is absence.

The urgent needs of the world may seem to push us to get busy right away, to throw ourselves willy-nilly into damage control, putting our fingers in the holes of the dyke. But it is a sterile activism that does not first draw wisdom, peace, and strength from the Source, in whose hand alone lies the healing, renewal, and salvation of mankind. Pray, worship, be silent, receive the Holy Eucharist, discover the life of God in yourself—and then begin to communicate it to others. When Christ is the Presence in your own interior emptiness, then you can fill the emptiness around you with that same Presence.

So, be presence where there is absence. People need to see the face of Jesus in this world, in which satan rears his ugly head all too often, sometimes thinly disguised, but easily unmasked by the Spirit of Truth. Abide in Christ and He will abide in you. Fill one absence at a time—and start renewing the face of the earth.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Psalm 1: The Two Ways

From time to time I’ll be tiptoeing through the Psalter to offer little commentaries or reflections. We pray the psalms here in the monastery several times every day, so they gradually form our mind-sets and even our vocabulary. I’ll start today at the very beginning—a very good place to start!

Psalm 1 is a mini-overture for the whole Psalter. It’s only six verses long, but covers several themes that constantly recur in this book of the Bible (and others as well): the blessedness of the just and faithful one, delight in the law of the Lord, the rewards for righteousness and the judgment of wickedness. This psalm is part of a long tradition in both the Old and New Testaments, and in later spiritual literature as well: that of the “two ways.”

There is a way of goodness and a way of evil, a way of blessing and a way of curse, a way of fidelity and a way of infidelity, a way of obedience and a way of rebellion, a way of salvation and way of damnation, the narrow gate and the wide gate, the tree that bears good fruit and the one that bears rotten fruit, the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ” and the “law of sin and death.” These themes frequently occur in Scripture, and they are at the heart of divine revelation, insofar as human living is concerned. The two ways manifest the reality of human freedom and also the consequences of our free acts. Certain choices lead to happiness, virtue, peace, and salvation, and other choices lead to misery, debauchery, turmoil, and ultimately the despair that foreshadows perdition.

The psalm expresses the two ways thus: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…but his delight is in the law of the Lord.” Then the ways of the righteous and the wicked are compared: the righteous “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in season…” Now the other way: “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment…”

The conclusion about the two ways? “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Yet it seems that today, in the interest of moral relativism, dissent from Church teaching, or just plain selfish indolence, quite a few people would like to walk partly in one way and partly in another. But the logic of the “two ways” does not permit that. You can’t be partly saved and partly damned, partly blessed and partly cursed. True, it is very often the case that for a time one can be partly good and partly bad, but in the end the way you choose will secure you wholly in Heaven or wholly in Hell. “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30), said the Lord, so you can’t hope to be saved by coasting or wavering or withholding commitment. Not to decide clearly for Christ is to decide against Him.

St Paul makes the point clear as well: “For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? …What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2Cor. 6:14-16). This is part of his own “two ways” teaching. (The picture above is not intended to suggest fellowship between the two ways, only that there’s a way that leads to the flames and a way that doesn’t.)

Pick up the Psalter, then, and pray and learn more about the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness. Probably most of us who believe in Christ are not truly wicked, but every departure from the way of the righteous will ultimately (if not sooner) have to be dealt with, and the painful purging of our sins must precede our entrance into the heavenly kingdom. Be, then, 100% with Christ. I can’t imagine anything worse than being against Him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Intercession: The Love of Christ Impels Us

What does it mean when we “intercede” for someone, offer “intercessory” prayer? Is it something other than just “saying a prayer” for them? As you have probably just guessed, it is. The word “intercede” literally means to “go between.” If I offer intercessory prayer for you, I stand between you and God, “connecting” the two of you, as it were. I bring your needs before the face of God, and if it pleases Him, He will hear my prayer and grant what you need.

Why is it, though, that I don’t merely pray for my own needs and you pray for yours? Do we need each other as “go-betweens” with God? The answer lies not in any metaphysical necessity, but in the will and love of God. God is personal and He works through persons, be they angels or men, and not simply by almighty divine fiat. God is love, and what He does in and through us is love. Jean Lafrance, after reading the writings of St Silouan of Mt Athos, remarked: “He especially showed me how much God’s love impels us to intercede for our brothers” (emphasis in the original).

In her book, Secret of the Heart: Spiritual Being, Jean-Marie Howe, OCSO, writes: “In the second letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul makes a remark about people who believe that Jesus died for all in order that all might live in him. He says that the love of God ‘controls’ or ‘compels’ them; some translations use the words ‘forces,’ ‘constrains,’ or ‘pushes.’ These are strong words; Saint Paul is speaking of an intense interior movement rather than of some vague influence.”

She continues: “What is this love of which he speaks? It is the love that ‘impelled’ Christ to die in order for all to be reconciled with God… The love of Christ that inspires Christians is a love that seeks the salvation of all humanity. Ultimately, Christians are motivated, perhaps even ‘compelled,’ not by their love for Christ, but by the very love of Christ burning within their hearts…

Allow me to let her do the talking: “If one pursues this passage of Scripture a bit further, one finds that the Greek word which is translated as ‘constrains’ or ‘compels’ is used elsewhere with the additional connotation of ‘anguish’ (Lk. 12:50; 2Cor. 2:4). This love of Christ is an anguished love; perhaps this is what Pascal meant when he said that Christ would be in agony until the end of the world. The love that compels Christ can know no respite until all creation is reconciled with God. To the degree that one can say, ‘I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20), one will be compelled by this consuming love which gives itself for the salvation of the world. This anguished love is the heart of Christian prayer; how much more central should it be to the monk’s prayer? In speaking this way, we realize that Christian intercession is intimately associated with the primordial intercession of Christ, identified both with the sin of the world and the loving will of the Father, even to the point of holocaust.”

Finally, she quotes a passage from Dom Andre Louf, who wrote the following after visiting a hermit on Mt Athos: “Suddenly, I was very, very touched by a deep impression that in this private chapel before a primitive iconostasis, in the sanctuary of this hermit I was really at the heart of the world and of the Church. There was nothing more important than to be there and pray. The only important thing in the world was to be there before the face of Christ.”

Mother Jean-Marie concludes that monks ought to have this attitude in response to all those who seek our intercession, who need us to stand for them before the face of God—He who alone can soothe the wounds of bodies and souls that ache with their need for the Savior. For monks, she says, “The only thing that matters is to be there, in the monastery, at the heart of the world, at the heart of the Church, and pray.”

Monks may have a special charism for intercession, but as members of the Body of Christ we are all called to stand before the face of God for those who entrust their needs to us, those who perhaps have lost all strength and hope and confidence to go to the Throne of Grace alone. We bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). We don’t just say prayers. We intercede, we “go between,” for the love of Christ impels us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Look to the Unseen

In an age of rationalism, secularism, and an inordinate reliance on “science” to give us all the answers to the riddles of the universe, St Paul’s advice to “look to the things that are unseen” (2Cor. 4:18) may seem antiquated or irrelevant. Yet it is essential to the life of faith and hope, and hence to salvation.

He says a little further on that we walk by faith, not by sight. Faith is a kind of sight, however, yet not a bodily sight, for it looks to the Unseen. To live merely on the level of the senses is to resign oneself to a life that is ultimately unsatisfying and that leads to disintegration and despair. We are all in a slow process of aging and dying (though more noticeable to some than to others), but we don’t want to look at that, don’t want to know what our lives ultimately mean and where we are headed. The great health craze of the past couple decades—health clubs, “anti-aging” nutritional supplements, sex-enhancing drugs, the sort of self-hypnotism by which people positively-think they will be young and healthy for many decades to come—has its deepest foundation in the fear of death, though no one wants to come out and say it. It’s a symptom of a widespread loss of faith, loss of hope in the true and everlasting life to come—a giving up on looking to the Unseen. (We ought to take reasonably good care of our bodily health, but for too many it is practically an obsession. Physical health is not the primary or ultimate value of this life, as the saints will readily testify.)

St Paul’s Christian realism does not duck the inevitable decomposition of our mortal frames, does not deny the intimations of death that manifest in the sufferings of this life. But he injects them with faith and hope. “We have this treasure [i.e., “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”] in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in our bodies” (2Cor. 4:7-10).

What is his response to this state of affairs? “We do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction [to discover Paul’s “slight momentary affliction” see 2Cor. 11:23-28] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (4:16-18).

Paul was a man who knew where he came from and where he was going. He would be horrified and nauseated (probably in that order) by the moral relativism, self-absorption, godless hubris, and myopic spiritual vision (if there’s any at all) of the present age. He was a man seeking the fullness of life, and he knew—by experience as well as by faith—that it could only be found in “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Therefore he wasn’t interested in “the things that are seen,” that is, the passing attractions, cheap seductions, or material advantages of this life. He strained forward, pressed on, “that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of me” (see Phil. 3:12-16).

So, let us not lose heart. Even though we may seem to be wasting away, if we believe in Christ and have hope for eternal life our inner nature is being daily renewed. Know where to look; know whence come peace, courage, joy and eternal blessedness. Look to the Unseen, for before too very long “Christ our life will appear, and you too will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4). Then begins the life that is life indeed.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Do It Again

C.S. Lewis had a way of gaining and expressing insights into dimensions of our lives that perhaps we do not give sufficient attention, if any at all. He wove them into his novels almost in passing, so that you really have to be listening in order to “get it.” But he knew what he was doing, and those who have ears will hear. The following is from Perelandra, and it describes one of the experiences of Dr Ransom as he was exploring for the first time that paradisal planet—tasting its indescribably wonderful fruits.

“He had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight… It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures… As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favor of tasting this miracle again… Yet something seemed opposed to this ‘reason’… For whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day… He stood pondering over this and wondering how often in his life on earth he had reiterated pleasures…in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism…

“Looking up at a fine cluster of the ‘bubbles’ [another type of paradisal fruit] which hung above his head, he thought how easy it would be to get up and plunge oneself through the whole lot of them and to feel, all at once, that magical refreshment multiplied tenfold. But he was restrained by the same sort of feeling which had restrained him over-night from tasting a second gourd. He had always disliked the people who encored a favorite air in the opera—‘That just spoils it’ had been his comment. But this now appeared to him as a principle of far wider application and deeper moment. This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards…was it possibly the root of all evil? No: of course the love of money was called that. But money itself—perhaps one valued it chiefly as a defense against chance, a security for being able to have things over again…”

Lewis has here hit on something to which most people probably wouldn’t give a second thought, but which is actually quite important. The desire to repeat pleasurable experiences, simply for the sake of the pleasure—for in the above passage “he was now neither hungry nor thirsty”—may truly be at the root of all evil, at least of all greed and lust and hedonistic self-absorption. The “do it again” mentality also makes it difficult for people to receive God’s gifts precisely as gifts—which are regulated by the wisdom and generosity of the Giver and not by the unrestrained desire of the recipient. To receive something from God in the measure that it is given is to live in peace, gratitude, and self-control. To always want more for the sake of pleasure or of luxuriating in superfluous abundance is to merit the censure of the selfish man who “grew rich for himself but not in the sight of God” (Luke 12:21).

The principle applies in spiritual life as well as with material goods and pleasures. If one has a powerful or profound experience of the presence and love of God, upon returning to prayer one may wish to re-create the experience, to have it over again because it was so blessed. But that is not within our power, nor is it within the will of God, who remains the Master of his gifts and of the revelation of his presence, according to the inscrutable designs of his will for our spiritual growth and salvation. We simply try to dispose ourselves to be open to whatever He wishes to give—and to make sure we are presenting no inner obstacles that would impede his lavish bestowal of grace.

All good things come from God and are to be received with thanksgiving, and also with the wisdom that waits on his providence and doesn’t try to take something that is meant only to be received. Don’t try to have it again, whatever it is. If it is good for you, it will given again, according to the Lord’s mercy and goodness. For even good things can become a source of evil if abused. But the delights of Paradise await those who receive life as it comes from the hand of God.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Cyber-Slums

In just about all cities larger than rural towns, you’ll find the “slums,” depressed and degenerating areas where there is often a lot of crime, drugs, prostitution, etc. I don’t intend here to comment on the societal factors from which the slums emerge, only the fact of their existence, only the fact that there are some parts of town in which it is unsafe to walk.

Today many people “surf” more than walk, that is, they spend a lot of time in “cyberspace,” on the Internet, where they can find entertainment, news, information of just about any kind, shopping, opportunities for communication, etc. Cyberspace has its own slums, places that are unsafe to be, and here I’m not even talking about the multifarious forms of pornography that are all too easily accessed. That’s more like cyber-hell, or at least an invitation to the inferno.

The cyber-slums I’m referring to are just across the tracks from people like you and me, who sometimes accidentally wander into them. There are a number of ways to gauge the direction of our high-tech internet culture, if I can ennoble it with that word (I just innocently stumbled across a news item that referred to “raunch culture”—a true oxymoron—with an accompanying photo that made rather simple my decision not to look further into the story). One of the ways to discover the state of the society is to see what the bloggers are saying.

I have said, and I still think it is true, that the advent of blogs is an unprecedented leap in the facilitation of the communication of ideas. Really, for the first time in history, anyone (who has access to a computer) can publish his or her thoughts—for free—to an audience that can be a large as the world. In a sense it is an empowerment for those who otherwise have no voice, and also a way to get all the news and information that the Orwellian major media refuse to let us know, that they try to cover up or distort. And, of course, for someone like me, it is a golden opportunity to preach the Gospel and encourage fidelity to the Church to a much larger number of people than I could by remaining within the monastic enclosure—now I can do both!

But there’s a down side, and it’s a pretty big one. The cyber-slums in the ambivalent world of blogging seem to constitute the greater portion of the virtual landscape. On the home page of the host organization (or whatever you call it) of my blog, they have a rotating list of all the blogs in their domain (thousands, as far as I can guess). Every once in a while I will check out a few of them—ones that don’t have names indicating their decided preference for raunch culture. I have rarely found one that is edifying or even very interesting, and sometimes I find myself in the middle of the slums. (I know that there are many Catholic blogs, some of which are good, though mostly they tend to be chatty, superficial, newsy, or sarcastically critical of current events in and out of the Church. But I’m glad they’re there, frankly, when I see the alternatives, though they don’t really do much to enhance anyone’s spiritual life.)

What I find in the average blog (by “average” I don’t include the occultists, the neo-nazis, the various perverts, etc), is stream-of-consciousness rambling, incoherent or inane diaries, and basically a heaping portion of narcissistic exhibitionism—all the drivel that is interesting to no one. The blog is the ideal tool for the “me-generation” (a dated term, I know, but it still applies). Anyone can vent, preen, run off at the mouth, use the “f-word” as often as he likes, and basically be the snotty, immature, self-centered bore that no one else outside of virtual reality will tolerate. It’s a bit disappointing, to say the least, but it does give us an idea (perhaps we would rather not know) of the low level of intellectual and moral functioning of much of blogging America.

So what do you do? Seek and you shall find, for starters. Internet searches for specific Catholic topics can lead to you to some helpful and edifying sites. But try to stay away from the slums. It’s a waste of time and might even be a near occasion of sin. And once you’ve read a lot of beneficial stuff, maybe you would like to share your faith with the world. Start your own blog—why not? Why let all the ditzy babblers and godless frog-mouths fill up the cybersphere? We could be “Bloggers for Christ,” and have T-shirts made up or something. Anyway, there’s much hope, much potential for spreading the word of God. Let us pray that Holy Spirit will inspire all righteous and sincere efforts to bring God’s truth and love to this electronic generation, and let’s build the City of God over the ruins of the cyber-slums.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fear of Truth

I’ve had occasion to write on the subject of truth several times, and will surely do so again. There’s a certain “sickness” going around that can be called the fear of truth. I’d like to say a few things on that, some of which are taken from a recent homily of mine (concerning the Pharisees’ fear of the truth who is Christ) and from a book by Jean Vanier. When people fear the truth, they want to get rid of the one who speaks it to them. Thus the prophets and the martyrs were killed. Christ Himself said, “I am the truth.” Therefore, He had to die at the hands of those who feared the truth.

There are different kinds of fear of truth. One is found among those whom you might call the “seekers,” who always say that they are seeking the truth, but they don’t really want to find it—because if they did find it (and if they had any integrity), they would be obliged to embrace the truth. The truth would require them to change their lives. It’s much easier to go on seeking but never finding. Then you never have to convert and conform yourself to the truth because you always have this excuse: I’m still searching. Well, eventually you have to find, and start living the truth.

The same thing can be said for those who are simply lukewarm or culpably ignorant. They’d rather not know what the Gospel says and what it requires, because if they do they will have no excuse for their sin. They are, in effect, choosing to live in the darkness and turning away from the light, perhaps not realizing how foolish and dangerous a thing that is for their souls. Others fear the truth not because they might have cold feet about embracing it, but because to embrace the truth will put them at some sort of disadvantage. By living a lie, they have some advantage, some economic or political or social advantage—perhaps even ecclesiastical advantage. What comes to mind are the abortion industry, the “gay” movement, corrupt politicians and corporate heads, and the high-profile dissenters in the Church. They all have a stake, a vested interest, in not embracing the truth because their own agendas are more profitable for building up their egos or their economic or political fortunes if they continue the lie. Therefore they fear and hate those who would unmask them.

Now there’s another kind of fear of truth, which I discovered in a book by Jean Vanier, entitled Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. He says that this type of fear of truth is found among those who have grown up in severely dysfunctional or abusive situations, and who learned as children that truth is harsh or painful. Therefore they learned to flee reality for self-protection. Their unfortunate experiences are not their fault, but the answer is not to hide in the darkness, for Christ calls us into the light. Fear of truth can be overcome, and it must, or else one may stay in the darkness his or her whole life, and maybe for all eternity.

Vanier writes both of the truth that we find among the Pharisees in the Gospel and that which we may find in our own lives:

“They are frightened of Jesus, frightened of reality and truth. They want to get rid of the one who announces the truth and who offers to bring them into reality. They cannot hear the words of Jesus or recognize who He is. They are cemented in fear and in hate. They refuse to see and accept the facts of the miracles of Jesus, because if they did see and believe, then they would have to change their ways.

“Who are those we refuse to look at, listen to and accept because they make us see our own brokenness in such a way that we would be forced to change our ways? …We do not want to see our own inner reality, our brokenness and fear. We pretend that everything is all right and that we are all right. Why are we frightened of the truth? Is it because…if we see reality too clearly we will fall into despair?

“[The conflicts, abuse, or rejections experienced in childhood can make people] hide away in their shell, and flee from all the pain and from reality. They find a welcome escape in illusions… They cannot or do not want to name the truth… Truth and reality can be too dangerous, too terrible for some people… We can be frightened of uncovering certain truths about ourselves…frightened of the consequences, afraid that we might have to change… We hide behind walls that we have created for ourselves to prevent us from looking directly at the facts, from listening to others…who may reveal to us other truths about life and what it means to be human.”

We have to let Christ into our lives, into our infirmities, into our bondage. We must have the courage to hear the truth about God and about ourselves through the Gospel, through the Tradition, and through those whom God puts in our lives to speak the truth to us. The word of divine truth is a two-edged sword, as we read in Hebrews (4:12-13). One edge of this sword is like a scalpel for cutting away the disease of error, self-deception, unhealthy defense mechanisms, and the self-interest that leads us to embrace lies. The other edge is for liberating us from bondage to falsehood and sin, cutting through the fetters that bind our souls to the powers of darkness.

Therefore be not afraid of truth, for Christ Himself is the Truth, and He has the words of eternal life. We are called to be courageous in speaking and receiving and living the truth, following Him who said: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).